Jazzed in Cleveland
a jazz history by Joe Mosbrook
a special WMV Web News Cleveland series
Part 103 - Early Cleveland Records
Cleveland jazz fans might be surprised to learn that almost 200 recordings were made by Cleveland musicians prior to 1930. The music and the recording quality of those early Cleveland records do not reflect our current views of jazz any more than Baron von Richthofen’s 18-foot Fokker tri-plane resembles a modern supersonic jet. But, those records were a significant and frequently overlooked part of Cleveland’s long and rich jazz heritage.
The first I found was a recording by James Reese Europe’s 369th Infantry Hell Fighter Band. The drum major and number two man of that World War I Army band was Noble Sissle, the son of the pastor of Cleveland’s Cory Methodist Church and a graduate of old Central High School. The band’s recording of "Too Much Mustard" was made in 1913 – almost four years before the Original Dixieland Jazz Band first recorded what many consider to be the first jazz record. Some jazz historians now believe Clevelander Sissle took part in what was actually the first jazz record. During the teens, Sissle and the Hell Fighter band recorded at least 26 songs.
In the 1920s Sissle teamed up with pianist Eubie Blake to record at least 44 other sides. And, with his orchestra, Sissle recorded at least 58 songs for the Emerson, Okeh and Parlophone record companies in the ‘20s including recordings of songs from the 1921 Broadway show, Shuffle Along. One of the songs was "I’m Just Wild About Harry." Sissle also made many more recordings in the 1930s and ‘40s with his orchestra.
In February of 1923 the Vernon-Owens Hotel Winton Orchestra went to Richmond, Indiana, just across the state line from Dayton, to record six songs for Gennett Records, including "The World is Waiting for the Sunrise." This was a month before Gennett’s historic recordings of the New Orleans Rhythm Kings, two months before Louis Armstrong first recorded with King Oliver, and a year before Bix Beiderbecke’s first record.
The Emerson Gill Orchestra, Cleveland’s most popular dance band of the ‘20s, apparently made the first records recorded in Cleveland. As the phonograph record business was growing rapidly, Okeh Records began what it called "location recording." Beginning in 1924, Okeh sent mobile recording trucks out to tour various parts of the country to record bands that were not being heard in New York or Chicago. The company made regular trips to a number of cities, including Cleveland. Gill recorded four sides for Okeh in March of 1924 and five more the following year, including "Birmingham Bound" and "My Name Will Always Be Chickie." During this recording session, Gill, the dapper and balding leader, led an eight-piece band which consisted of cornetist Lee Riley, trombonist Harry Countman, saxophonist and clarinetist Jim Harry, pianist Bill Miller, banjo player Pinky Hunter, drummer Andy Pickard, and two others who played saxophone and bass. Hunter, who also sang, later became a broadcaster of Cleveland Indians baseball games. During the 1920s, Gill and his orchestra recorded at least 21 songs for Okeh and Columbia.
The Austin Wylie Orchestra was another popular Cleveland dance band in the 1920s. The band played at the Golden Pheasant Chinese Restaurant on Prospect Avenue, just east of East 9th Street. In 1924 Wylie and his orchestra went to New York City to record six songs for Vocalion Records. They returned to New York in 1925 and recorded eight more including "I’m Gonna Charleston Back to Charleston." During eight recording sessions in the ‘20s, the Wylie Orchestra recorded at least 26 songs for Vocalion and Brunswick.. Later members of Wylie’s Cleveland band included young Artie Shaw, Claude Thornhill, Tony Pastor, Billy Butterfield, Vaughn Monroe and Helen O’Connell. When Shaw became a national name, Wylie became his manager.
A Cleveland dance band led by Phil Spitalny recorded at least 24 songs for the Victor Record Company in Cleveland in the 1920s. Spitalny was later best known for leading his Hour of Charm All-Girl Orchestra which featured "Evelyn and her Magic Violin." She later became Mrs. Spitalny.
When a young Ohio State University student named Harold Ortli heard about Okeh Records recording in Cleveland, he auditioned his band, the Ohio State Collegians. On February 19, 1925 they recorded two sides, "I Couldn’t Get to It in Time," and "My Daddy Rocks Me With a Steady Roll." Ortli was a drummer. The other members of his band were cornetist Frank Zeeck, trombonist Elmer Sessenmyer, saxophonist Herb Hand, pianist Walter Sessenmeyer, banjo player Clarence Buck and bass player Doug Whitstone. After college, Ortli formed another band in Cleveland and played for years at the Euclid Beach amusement park.
Okeh Records also took its portable recording equipment to Cleveland’s Club Madrid in February of 1925 and recorded banjo player Chauncey C. Lee playing "Banjo Rag."
A month later, in March of 1925, a band led by Joe Smith, playing at the Martha Lee Club on the second floor of the Ohio and State Theatre building on Euclid Avenue, also recorded for Okeh. One song was "Nora Lee," based on a serial that was running at the time in the Cleveland News. The week the record was made, magician Harry Houdini was the featured attraction next door at the Palace Theatre.
All of these dozens of dance band records by Cleveland bands were recorded before the Cleveland Orchestra made its first recording in May of 1926.
So far in our ongoing research, we have managed to document at least 73 recording sessions by Cleveland musicians in the 1920s -- 40 by Noble Sissle, 11 by Phil Spitalny, nine by Emerson Gill, eight by Austin Wylie, two by Joe Smith, and one each by the Vernon-Owens Orchestra, Harold Orli, and Chauncey Lee. These Cleveland musicians recorded almost 200 songs prior to 1930. Few, if any, of the now antique 78 RPM records were transferred to LPs or CDs. If you can find some of the old 78s, you will have some real treasures. They represent a significant and frequently overlooked part of Cleveland’s long and rich popular music and jazz heritage.
Copyright 2005 Joe Mosbrook
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You can hear radio versions of Cleveland Jazz History on WCPN/90.3 Monday nights at 9:30. The greatly-expanded second edition of Mosbrook’s Cleveland Jazz History book is available by calling (216) 252-0828.